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Salah a forlorn, frustrated figure on a night Anfield's magic goes missing

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Liverpool's Mohamed Salah looks dejected following the Champions League quarter-final second leg against Real Madrid at Anfield last night. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah looks dejected following the Champions League quarter-final second leg against Real Madrid at Anfield last night. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah looks dejected following the Champions League quarter-final second leg against Real Madrid at Anfield last night. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty

Mohamed Salah’s tormented demeanour held up a mirror to Liverpool’s night. Nothing about the script they had drafted in their heads, the one where they bookended the historic result against Barcelona in 2019 by humbling the 13-time champions who had denied them in 2018, unfolded quite as they intended. Everywhere they looked, the magic of Anfield was missing.

Once, there had been a never-ending chorus of You’ll Never Walk Alone, now there was a brick thrown at the Real Madrid bus. Once, there had been the sight of Salah smiling at the mayhem of perhaps Liverpool’s most famous win. Now, there was a only crestfallen figure lamenting all the opportunities he had squandered, and contemplating quite where he would go from here.

For months, Salah has been fluttering his eyelashes at Real Madrid, strategically arranging interviews with the Spanish media to argue how much he would love to light up La Liga one day. Against that backdrop, this match felt like a defining crossroads in his career.

Either Salah, at 28, could play a starring role for Liverpool and leave them no choice but to offer him the improved contract terms he desires. Or he could fluff his lines and watch any hope of a transfer to the Bernabeu evaporate. Alas, he took the second turning, but not for any want of trying.

Forget his passivity at Anfield of late: he wanted, with a palpable ferocity, to frustrate Real, but just could not apply the decisive blow.

The temptation was to ask where this version of Liverpool had been for the past seven months. Evidently, the danger of elimination from the Champions League focuses their minds like nothing else. For where a disjointed domestic season has reduced them to a torpor, one that has included six consecutive home league defeats for the first time in their history, there is nothing like a portentous European evening for rousing them back to their relentless best. Thwarted though their mission ultimately was, their efforts were rich in the vibrant enterprise that has distinguished the Klopp era.

The only criticism was that they needed their Egyptian king, the player who since 2017 has averaged more than 30 goals a season as a winger, to deliver when it counted most.

Salah did not want for inspiration. For all the euphoric moments he has enjoyed in red, the occasion where he was most conspicuously absent, due to a head injury, was the Barcelona game, where it fell to Divock Origi and Georginio Wijnaldum to play the heroes on a fevered night. Here was his invitation to change a game with the same heady stakes, one where waves of restless Liverpool attack all pivoted around him. No sooner had Karim Benzema first had his ankle clattered by James Milner than the ball deflected obligingly into his path, only for him to direct it straight at Thibaut Courtois.

Six minutes and 25 seconds, the Anfield clock read two years ago, when Origi first struck to spark pandemonium in the Kop and paralysis in the Barcelona defence. The sense, in the absence of a seething crowd, was that Liverpool needed to start like a freight train again to recapture the spirit of 2019.

Granted, they only had to score two this time, not four, but the longer their breakthrough was delayed, the more Real Madrid could reach for the comfort blanket of possession football, squeezing any early vigour from their opponents.

Salah, just as in the first leg, was sharp, neat and incisive in almost all he did. The trouble came when he tried to plunge the dagger. The stage was his when Ferland Mendy missed a clearance and left him perfectly placed to sweep one of his signature curlers into the top-left corner. But instead of wrapping his boot around the ball, he seemed almost to dig it out of the turf, leaning back as his shot sailed high into the canopied stands.

He was far from the only offender, with Wijnaldum fumbling his lines in identical fashion just a minute later. But it is at moments such as these that Liverpool turn to Salah for their salvation. In many ways, he has become the emblem of this team, the figure whose exhilarating flourishes have adorned the Klopp style, not to mention a first league title for 30 years. If he and his agent wanted to underline his financial value to the club, then here was his stage to do so.

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Gradually, his energy ebbed away. As Real found ways of crowding him out, he increasingly looked like a man chasing a lost cause. Once more in the second half, he had time and space to bend a strike beyond Courtois, but dawdled with one too many touches, unsettled by the close attentions of Eder Militao. Salah is wise enough to know that football is not dictated by supernatural forces. He is a rarity among Liverpool players, for example, in that he tempers eulogies of Klopp by describing his dynamic with the manager as a “normal relationship between two professionals”. Eventually, he understands, the enchantment runs out.

Last night, for Liverpool, it did.

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